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Biggest battle in taekwondo over before Olympics

By MARIA CHENG,

Associated Press

Updated July 13, 2012

LONDON (AP) At least this taekwondo controversy wrapped up before the Olympics.

Top-ranked British star Aaron Cook has given up his battle for a spot at the London Games after U.K. officials chose rival Lutalo Muhammad, ranked 104. Cook said it would be too expensive to sue the British Olympic Association and he was "totally devastated."

The BOA ratified Muhammad's nomination even after citing problems in the selection process and forcing GB Taekwondo to hold a second panel with an independent observer. British sports minister Hugh Robertson said the controversy was embarrassing.

The World Taekwondo Federation, the martial art's governing body, slammed Britain for dragging the sport into "disrepute" and is conducting its own review into the decision. But that won't be finished in time to enable world No. 1 Cook to fight in London.

Cook claims British officials sidelined him to punish him for ditching the national training program last year. He won the Olympic test event in December and narrowly missed out on a bronze at the Beijing Games.

Upheaval is the last thing taekwondo needs. It was plagued by scoring problems at the Beijing Olympics and nearly tossed out of the games. Next year, officials will be reviewing whether taekwondo should stay in the Olympics - just as other combat sports like karate try to claw their way in.

Since the Korean martial art was introduced at the Olympics in 2000, numerous countries have honed their kicking skills and South Korea's traditional dominance has dipped. Iran has a taekwondo television channel and a national league where players compete regularly. When Afghani fighter Rohullah Nikpai won the country's first-ever Olympic medal in taekwondo in Beijing, he became a national hero and was given a house by President Hamid Karzai.

In the U.S., American fighter Steven Lopez is taekwondo's biggest star, winning a record five world championships, two Olympic golds and a bronze at Beijing. Coached by older brother Jean, Lopez will compete alongside his sister Diana at the London Games.

Lopez's strategy sounds simple enough.

"I want to land my foot on my opponent and not let him land his foot on me," he said. "Actually doing it may be a little trickier."

Points are tracked by an electronic scoring system now and are only awarded if fighters kick or punch their opponent's chest protector with sufficient force. Punches to the head aren't allowed.

The rules were recently changed to grant points for head kicks any time a fighter's foot touches their opponent's head guard regardless of whether any force is used. Head kicks score three to four points while kicks or punches to the body only score one point. With more fighters attempting the fancy kicks for more points, taekwondo has become more exciting for spectators.

Lopez has mixed feelings about the recent change, acknowledging officials probably were trying to make the sport safer since fighters often go for more head kicks to win.

"Taekwondo is a full-contact sport," he said. "It's a little silly that you can now just tap (your opponent's) head and get three points, but I will implement whatever strategy I need to win."

Jean-Marie Ayer, secretary-general of the World Taekwondo Federation, said the changes were made to focus on speed and lightness rather than the deadly power of a traditional martial art.

"We want this to remain a sport where you want to send your children to," he said.

Ayer said the electronic scoring system is much more objective and has eliminated many of the protests from athletes and coaches, who also are entitled to at least one video replay for a disputed point. He thinks traditional powers such as South Korea and China will win many Olympic divisions, but is hoping athletes from developing countries like Afghanistan and Mali also will pocket some medals.

Ayer said the WTF's ongoing review of Britain's exclusion of Cook could only examine whether the decision was made transparently, not whether the fighter should have been picked.

"It's a problem in the U.K., but taking into the consideration the general picture of the sport, it's a small problem," he said. "We should not give too much weight to this kind of story even though as athletes we promote fairness and transparency."

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Medal projections:

Women

49-kilogram

Gold: Shu Chun Yang, Chinese Taipei

Silver: Jingyu Wu, China

Bronze: Rukiye Yildirim, Turkey, Sanaa Atabrour, Morocco

57-kilogram

Gold: Hou Yuzhuo, China

Silver: Li Cheng Tseng, Chinese Taipei

Bronze: Diana Lopez, U.S.A., Marlene Harnois, France

67-kilogram

Gold: Hwang Kyung-Sun, South Korea

Silver: Karine Sergerie, Canada

Bronze: Seham El Sawalhy, Egypt, Helena Fromm, Germany

Over 67-kilogram

Gold: Anne-Caroline Graffe, France

Silver: Maria Del Rosario Espinoza, Mexico

Bronze: In-Jong Lee, South Korea, Anastasia Baryshnikova, Russia

Men

58-kilogram

Gold: Joel Gonzalez Bonilla, Spain

Silver: Lee Dae-Hoon, South Korea

Bronze: Chen Yang Wei, Chinese Taipei, Chutchawal Khawlaor, Thailand

68-kilogram

Gold: Mohammad Motamed Bagheri, Iran

Silver: Servet Tazegul, Turkey

Bronze: Martin Stamper, Britain, Rohullah Nikpai, Afghanistan

80-kilogram

Gold: Ramin Azizoz, Azerbaijan

Silver: Steven Lopez, U.S.A.

Bronze: Yousef Karami, Iran, Nicolas Garcia, Spain

Over 80-kilogram

Gold: Cha Dong-Min, South Korea

Silver: Francois Coulombe-Fortier, Canada

Bronze: Xiaobo Liu, China, Carlo Molfetta, Italy

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